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China responds brutally to attacks on home soil

Opinion: crackdown on Xinjiang Muslims could prove disastrous

China responds brutally to attacks on home soil

Chinese authorities announced a one-year crackdown in Xinjiang on May 23.

Michael Sainsbury, Bangkok

May 30, 2014

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For the first time in its 65 years of rule, the Chinese Communist Party is under attack inside its own borders by groups that Beijing describes as terrorists, but who probably consider themselves freedom fighters.

What only a few months ago appeared to be a few random events, including knife attacks in the southern cities of Kunming and Guangzhou, is threatening to become a full scale guerilla war.

The extent of the damage to the party's pride and its euphemistic “stability policy” is only too clear as it begins a wide ranging, heavily armed response against ethnic Muslim Uyghurs in the strategically critical northwestern province of Xinjiang.

On Tuesday, Chinese authorities held a “mass sentencing” of 55 people in a stadium in Xinjiang with three people sentenced to death on charges including terrorism and separatism.

During this mass trial, 7,000 people and Communist Party officials in Ili Prefecture watched a "mass gathering for public sentencing, public arrests and public criminal detention, punishing a group of violent terrorist criminals in accordance with the law”, state news agency Xinhua reported. 

The return of mass trials harks back to the dark days of the Cultural Revolution during the late 1960s and early 70s, and they haven’t been witnessed in China since the 90s.

Although Chinese media has acknowledged the lack of job opportunities and discontent among ethnic minority Uyghurs in Xinjiang, much of the discourse following the spate of recent attacks has focused squarely on a heavy-handed response. Following the May 22 terrorist attack on the main market in Xinjiang’s provincial capital Urumqi in which more than 40 people were killed, Beijing appears to have lost patience. A day later, the Communist Party announced a year-long crackdown in Xinjiang.

This has happened before in Xinjiang, a sign that past heavy-handedness has failed. The impact on the rights of this Muslim minority of about nine million people has been worrying.

After violent street protests and rioting in the predominantly Uyghur city of Kashgar left nearly 200 dead in July 2009, Beijing launched a six-month crackdown that only served to further antagonize.

The entire province – bar government offices and sanctioned companies – was cut off from the internet and international telephone system. Tens of thousands of military and paramilitary troops were mobilized to new barracks in Xinjiang. So began the ham-fisted radicalization of this Muslim minority by the Chinese government.

Uyghurs claim they have suffered discrimination for years. Few get senior jobs in cities like Shanghai as China’s economy has boomed in recent years. Crackdowns that affect the entire population of this remote province are only like to nurture simmering resentment that has existed here for years.

Xinjiang is strategically critical to China both geographically – it borders eight other countries including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Russia and Mongolia – and economically due to its vast range of untapped resources that run from oil and gas to iron ore and copper. Natural gas pipelines are also being extended through the province following recent new deals with Central Asian states, particularly Turkmenistan.

Just how important Xinjiang is can be seen from the attention it receives from China’s most senior party officials.

Yu Zhengsheng, number four in the main decision-making organ of state – the seven-man Standing Committee – and a key ally of President Xi Jinping has visited the province four times in the past 18 months (Yu is also head of the United Front, a key party group which oversees ethnic minorities and religious groups as well as overseas Chinese).

Xi himself visited just weeks before the recent market attack, telling army troops in Urumqi: “The more complex and severe the environment, the more able we are to sharpen our willpower and skill.”

He urged soldiers to reach “new achievements for their homeland and the people”.

If the goal is suppression and incitement rather than harmony and equality, sadly Beijing appears to be on track.

Human rights activists fear that innocent people are already suffering under the new crackdown in Xinjiang as normal legal standards – already suspect in China – are abandoned, the military takes control at the local level and there is little or no information on what is actually happening in the country’s largest province. The situation is therefore only likely to get worse.

Michael Sainsbury is a Bangkok-based journalist and commentator

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